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Recently I had the opportunity to see, for the first time in my life, a string quartet playing in very close quarters. The musicians were a few feet away, and from where I was seated I could see directly into the face of the cellist. It was a lovely concert, and the location was the sonorous and mysterious crypt of an ancient church. I enjoyed the music and the singing – there was also a soprano – but what struck me the most was the way the cellist was looking up, watching her sister players, glancing now down, now up, now across, watching the others’ faces, hands and instruments with intent and lively eyes. Never once was she lost in the music, playing to herself, but rather was in constant touch with the other players. It had never occurred to me in the past, hearing string quartets in concert halls, that the music was being made to happen, at least in part, through the players’ eyes.

There were several avenues of communication happening during that concert – a four-way musical communion between the cellist and the other players, each one supporting, divining, following and leading the others, measure by measure. There was also the conversation between the musicians and we the listeners in the audience, an exchange of energy that involved giving and receiving in both directions.   And in a grander and more transcendent way, there was also connection between all of us present that day, and the composers who put those notes on the page, once upon a time. We all of us together made the concert happen, and I felt that day that Mr. Mozart had personally handed me a gift.

I sing in a chorus and we often perform in a very large hall. Our music director has said to us, many times, “sing to the exit signs.” I know why he says this – it is to encourage people from being overly dependent on the music, to get their faces out of their scores and their eyes up and out, where the audience can see and enjoy them. From an audience standpoint, I understand him: in the performing arts, emotional communication is primary. We as audience members go to see live performances to be entertained, moved, and experience something together. It is hard to participate in the event if you are missing the human element – the link to the person performing.

But singing to an actual exit sign doesn’t work, does it? As a singer, I have no relationship with the exit sign. It is a dead object, inanimate, without soul. Singing to it is like singing into a void, for it can give me nothing back. And from the darkened stage gazing out into bright lights, neither can I identify and sing to individuals in the crowd. My answer is to sing with my eyes on the conductor, and thereby participate in a ceaselessly flowing cloverleaf of emotional and musical synergy, with instrumentalists, singers, composer, librettist, and audience. The conductor is, must be, at the center, and the electricity that is generated moment to moment, by all those eyes and hearts and minds combined to a single purpose, allows us to work together, and to take the audience along with us on an expressive journey.

Singing to the Exit Sign may be a metaphor for sharing, for I would argue that above all the purpose of any art is to communicate something to others. I am so grateful for the opportunities that music provides, as a singer and as an audience member, to share in the human and the divine. Never mind those neon exit signs, which only lead to a less exalted world.

©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.